The right approach to developing enterprise architecture?

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The right approach to developing enterprise architecture?

Four different ways to tackle it – time to decide which is for you

By Brian Burke , 16 April 2010 12:41


Developing an enterprise architecture can help organisations respond to change better and more quickly – and more cheaply. But different organisations require varying approaches to enterprise architecture and often need to employ a combination of methods argues Brian Burke, research vice president at analyst group Gartner.

For many years, enterprise architecture pundits have advanced the idea that employing a single standard approach – based on their methodology, naturally – will yield an ideal solution to an organisation’s problems. However, our research indicates there is no single approach to developing an enterprise architecture that will be correct for every organisation.

I would go as far as to say that enterprise architects are often adamant on using a single approach, but it is far more effective to apply the right approach for any given situation.

Different organisations require different approaches to enterprise architecture, or may even require different approaches within the same organisation. Having worked with thousands of clients, Gartner has been able to classify four different approaches that can be used as a starting point for defining the correct approach, or indeed set of approaches, for a particular organisation’s enterprise architecture needs.


A traditional approach to enterprise architecture is one that has evolved over many years, and results in an architecture that is driven by strategy and is highly prescriptive. Most of the standard industry frameworks and processes support a traditional approach which delivers very specific directives to projects on how to develop solutions that will meet business requirements, while reducing complexity in technology, information and business processes.

The traditional approach is supported by strong governance structures that ensure projects are compliant. This approach tends to work well in organisations that have a clearly defined business strategy and are relatively stable in terms of the pace of change, and where decision making is largely centralised. Conversely, it works less well in organisations that seem to lack a business strategy or organisations that are in highly dynamic industries where the pace of change seems to exceed management’s ability to define strategy.


In large, complex organisations, decision making is often largely decentralised, with business units having considerable autonomy over the enterprise architecture that is required to support the needs of their particular business. In organisations that use a federated architecture approach, there is an explicit split in decision-making authority between the business units and the group level. Some components of the architecture may be standardised across the organisation, and other architecture components may be decided at the business unit level.

A federated architecture approach is well suited to large organisations that are intending to achieve some level of standardisation across the organisation – to achieve interoperability or to reduce process or information diversity. It is an approach often used in organisations that are moving to implement a “one company” strategy. This approach does not suit centralised organisations or organisations where business units or partners have total autonomy in decision making.

Managed diversity

Many organisations struggle to define and implement a single set of rigidly enforced standards. In cases where there is also weak governance, the result is often a total lack of compliance, making matters as bad as having no enterprise architecture at all. A managed diversity approach seeks to strike a balance between the chaos of no policy and the stifling effect of a very small number of standard choices. This approach reduces complexity and costs by having a limited set of standards, with multiple choices for each architectural component, service, pattern or model. Project teams can decide which product best fits the project needs, rather than having a single standard imposed on them.

The advantage of this approach is that it enables users and project teams to select the right tool for the job, enabling innovation through diversity. The disadvantage of this approach is that users and projects must accept more responsibility for their choices – the enterprise architecture team is not going to tell them specifically how to solve their problem. There is also a risk of allowing too many standards, resulting in an architecture that is ineffective.

The middle way

Increasingly, the goal of enterprise architecture is to enable interoperability and information exchange without imposing product-level standards on projects, business units and partners. A middle way approach focuses on architecting the lines, not the boxes – to achieve interoperability by defining a small but rigidly enforced set of general, stable interface standards that include semantic definitions, while allowing complete autonomy of decision making for the specific technologies and products that are used.

A middle way approach is highly suited to very large organisations and business ecosystems, where the business units, partners, and suppliers are not under the direct control of a central enterprise architecture team. While this approach has been employed for some time in very large and complex organisations, our research indicates that smaller and less-complex organisations are starting to move towards taking this approach to resolve the political, cultural and governance problems that more prescriptive enterprise architecture approaches must deal with.

The primary advantages are that decision making is decentralised, and innovation is enabled through bottom-up diversity. The primary disadvantages of a middle way approach are that total costs may increase, and it is extremely difficult to define durable interface standards.

Of course the reality is that most organisations do not apply a single approach in a pure form; rather, they use a number of different approaches in different areas, resulting in a hybrid reality that meets their needs. The bottom line is that enterprise architecture teams must consider the various EA approaches and select the combination approaches that are viable for their organisations.

Brian Burke will co-chair the Gartner Enterprise Architecture Summit 201, taking place 17-18 May at the Lancaster London hotel. For more information or to register for the event visit


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